Alcohol consumption during COVID-19

Date: 06/05/2020 Written by: Daisy 5 minutes to read.
Human behaviour

Recent research published by Alcohol Change UK tells us that alcohol consumption is changing under coronavirus and lockdown measures, for better and worse. In this blog, we explore this research and review the factors influencing changes in alcohol consumption and behaviour – and their wider impact on people and society.

Human behaviour is nothing short of fascinating, and it’s interesting to see how this is changing during the coronavirus crisis. Every individual's experience of life under lockdown will be different but one such behaviour which is showing signs of change is alcohol consumption. Recent research from Alcohol Change UK shows how alcohol consumption is changing under lockdown, and it’s not clear cut as to why people are drinking ‘more’ or ‘less’.

What's going on? Are people drinking more or less alcohol?

The short answer? Both. Despite the closure of pubs, clubs and restaurants, some people are finding that the amount they drink and / or the frequency in which they do so has increased. On the flipside of this, however, and perhaps because of the enforced closure of their local pubs, clubs and restaurants, others have now reduced the amount they drink, or have stopped drinking completely. Findings by Alcohol Change UK showed that:

However...

The lockdown is affecting people in different ways, which is why some people are cutting down or cutting out alcohol and others are consuming more. 

Why are people drinking more / less?

These changes in alcohol consumption will be a result of a combination of factors, some of which are relevant to lockdown and others which would be present regardless.

As mentioned in my previous blog exploring changes in physical activity levels (if you haven’t read it yet, check it out here), people may be using lockdown to take some time to focus on themselves and their physical and mental health and wellbeing. As a result, they have become more health-focused in their typical activities and behaviours, which may include drinking less alcohol or cutting it out completely.

In other cases, however, it may have nothing to do with improving health and wellbeing and everything to do with the absence of social settings. Depending on the social group which an individual belongs to, its norms, rules and social setting, some people feel pressured to drink alcohol when socialising. By enforcing social distancing, lockdown has taken away the social pressure to drink any amount of alcohol, or even drink at all, and allows the individual to abstain without the fear of being criticised by their peers. However, this absence of a social group and social judgement may inversely lead to some individuals drinking more; not having the risk of being viewed negatively by peers when having too much to drink may lead to a lack of restraint when drinking.

When considering why people are drinking more, there’s one hugely influential factor that should have us worried: mental health and wellbeing. Increased alcohol consumption could likely be an indicator of deteriorating mental health and wellbeing in both those with and without pre-existing conditions, something which is no doubt rife in the current climate.

People across the country are facing increased levels of isolation and a lack of support to help them get through this crisis. Not being able to see family and friends and living with the fear of contracting coronavirus is having an impact on anxiety and stress levels, which is adversely impacting and exacerbating unhealthy and even dangerous behaviours, including increased alcohol consumption.

What does this mean?

For those who have reduced the amount that they are drinking or have stopped completely, we’re looking at improved physical health and mental wellbeing. For those who are drinking more, however, we may not only see deterioration in their physical health and wellbeing, but also their wider families being impacted.

Households may be experiencing increased tensions anyway, with everyone being at home all day every day, and one in 14 people who answered Alcohol Change UK’s survey thought that alcohol made these tensions worse. This was echoed by one in seven people living with children under the age of 18.

There is likely to be only a few scenarios where this tension doesn’t build up to lead to an adverse outcome. In the ‘least bad’ scenarios, households may have more arguments more frequently, but in the worst scenarios, we may begin to see a rise in household-related social issues, such as domestic violence, child abuse and divorce.

In addition to a rise in these household-related social issues, there is also a risk of rising rates of addiction and mental health difficulties. If people are in fact using alcohol to mitigate their feelings of stress and anxiety, they are at risk of carrying this dependency through to the post-lockdown and post-coronavirus world.

A short-term increase in alcohol consumption alone carries risks to mental and physical health, but if this is continued into the long-term then we could be facing a surge in demand from support systems once lockdown is over. Do you think we’re prepared for that?

Although the research does not show a clear-cut response to why ‘people are drinking more / less alcohol’, it does emphasise the point that each individual's experience is different, and therefore each person is affected by the lockdown in their own way. Whilst some may be taking this time to focus on their health and wellbeing, others are experiencing a decline in their mental health and wellbeing. What will the long-term impact of this be? We can’t say for sure, but we can say that there’s going to be a definite need for a variety of personal and familial support now and in the near future, which will become increasingly apparent post-lockdown.

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